Weekly Reader The Yiddish Theater

December 12 2021

For us twenty-first-century humans, it’s sometimes hard to imagine, or remember, what life was like before we had the sum of human knowledge in our pockets and endless entertainment at our fingertips. But once upon a time, not so long ago, beating boredom didn’t mean turning on a show, it meant going to see one. For Yiddish-speaking Jews, the theater was the ultimate entertainment. It was their weekend binge-watching—even, as countless scandals attested, their “Netflix and chill.” Of course, the Yiddish theater, like theater in general, is hardly dead. But it’s fun to think about a time when it was the only game in town.

Ezra Glinter

It Contains Multitudes

We sometimes talk about the Yiddish theater as if it were a single thing, but that would be untrue. As Motle Didner, associate artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, explains in this oral history interview, “Yiddish theater” has never been a monolithic, singular entity but is characterized by a multiplicity of shows, styles, and theatrical attitudes.

Watch an oral history interview with Motl Didner

Out on Second

There was, and is, Yiddish theater all over the world, but few places could compete with New York. As millions of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe poured into the city, a thriving community of Yiddish-language performing companies and venues sprang up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. By 1925, Second Avenue, known as the “Yiddish Broadway,” boasted more than a dozen theaters that attracted hundreds of thousands of theatergoers each year.

Read about New York's Yiddish theater

Blast from the Past

We may live in an age of technological marvels, but they haven’t yet invented the time machine that would let us go back and experience Yiddish theater in its heyday. Fortunately we have recordings that let us get a bit closer to that experience and that time. This concert, recorded in 1966 at Montreal’s Jewish Public Library, features singer Jennie Goldstein singing nothing but bangers.

Listen to a performance of Yiddish theater hits

At Night in the Old Marketplace

I. L. Peretz is known for his many achievements: the literary sophistication of his poetry and short stories, his seminal influence on Yiddish literature, and his accomplishments as a champion of Yiddish culture. Less well known are Peretz’s failures—most of which happened in the theater.

Read about I. L. Peretz’s ill-fated theatrical forays

In the Beginning

In her book The Rise of the Modern Yiddish Theater, Alyssa Quint, a senior scholar at the YIVO Institute and a contributor to the Digital Yiddish Theater Project, examines the beginnings of Yiddish-language theater and delves into one of Yiddish theater’s brilliant and polarizing figures, Avrom Goldfaden. Born in 1840, Goldfaden came from humble beginnings to become an immensely popular playwright and producer, drawing both the respect and ire of fellow Yiddish intellectuals like Sholem Aleichem.

Listen to Alyssa Quint on The Shmooze podcast

Not for Kids Only

Even if you don’t read Yiddish, and are not a child, this 1932 book of Yiddish theater pieces for children is worth checking out. Firstly, it was written by Baruch Lumet, an actor whose Yiddish theater fame was somewhat outshone by his film-director son, Sidney. Second, it’s got some pretty neat illustrations.

Read Teater far kinder by Baruch Lumet